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Holiday Book Bonanza ’09:
The UK Book Bloggers, Part II

By Kirsty McHugh, OUP UK

It has become a holiday tradition on the OUPblog to ask our favourite people about their favourite books.  This year we asked authors to participate (OUP authors and non-OUP authors).  For the next two weeks we will be posting their responses which reflect a wide variety of tastes and interests, in fiction, non-fiction and children’s books.  Check back daily for new books to add to your 2010 reading lists.  If that isn’t enough to keep you busy next year check out all the great books we have discovered during past holiday seasons: 2006, 2007, 2008 (US), and 2008 (UK).

As well as authors, though, I’ve been asking some of my favourite UK book bloggers for their picks of the year. I posted the first crop yesterday, and here are the rest.

Lynne Hatwell is better known to the blogosphere as Dovegrey Reader:

It hasn’t been difficult to muster up a favourite read or two from this year because what a memorable and inspiring year 2009 has been for both fiction and non-fiction and if there’s one books that sits at the top of the list for me it’s The Music Room by William Fiennes.

William Fiennes is the master of the poetic and lyrical memory, there is a gentle melody to this book which not only recalls his incredible childhood growing up in the inherited family seat which happened to be a castle, but also growing up with his older brother Richard who suffers from a severe form of epilepsy.

The castle provides a magical backdrop to an enviable childhood; water-filled, pike-laden moat, gatehouse, turrets and battlements, medieval chapel and acres of unlived-in rooms and attics stuffed full with not the normal stuff of lofts. Forget the Christmas decorations and Fisher-Price toys you can’t bear to part with, William wanders around trying on old armour and rattling sabres. But this is a home that must earn its keep (sorry) and so the family live a private life in a very public space, as rooms are opened to the public and visiting film crews, while the whole family turn their hand to talking and guiding people around their home. But behind all this lies Richard and his increasingly debilitating fits, with the brain damage and medication leading to violent and erratic behaviour and general unpredictability, but he is surrounded by love and a family who accept and understand him with the patience of the saints.

Somehow Richard’s outbursts seem containable within a castle, the fabric of this stronghold can tolerate and absorb his violence, his fists are unlikely to go through the walls; together with the provision of a magical setting in which to grow up, it’s something else castles are good at, they’ve seen it all before.

Books like this leave a feeling, a resonating mood, for me a pitch-perfect sense of optimism and goodness, I think The Music Room will be a book to revisit every so often, there is something timeless and quite life-enhancing about it.

Elaine Simpson-Long blogs at Random Jottings:

Edith Wharton – Hermione Lee. Only read this book in 2009 though I have had it for some time. Very dense, very scholarly as you would expect from this author, and totally absorbing. The main reason I found this book so engrossing was the linking and analysis of the writing with Edith’s life and her state of mind and location at the time each book was written, all of which have a bearing on the individual novels, short stories and poems.

Demobbed – Alan Allport. History is marvellously fascinating, I have always found it so, and when you read a book such as this one realises all over again that the great events, the great battles, the great treaties, all the great memorable historical events are all about the people, those who took part and whose lives were touched and shaped by being involved at the time. Immensely readable, immensely fascinating social history.

Lucy Maud Montgomery – Mary Rubio. Read this superb biography at the same time I was reading Montgomery’s Journals. How LMM managed to write all these wonderful joyous books when her life was so difficult and she suffered from depression and unhappily married, is a mystery to me.

Kisses on a Postcard – Terence Frisby. Gorgeous, heart-warming, funny, delightful – two small boys evacuated to Cornwall at the outbreak of the Second World War who are lucky enough to be billeted with Auntie Rose and Uncle Jack. Touching and disarming it had me in tears at the end.

Charles Dickens – Michael Slater. Cannot imagine that another biography of the great man need ever be written again. Concentrating on his life as a writer, this will leave you reeling at the sheer volume and intensity of Dickens writing and amazement that he managed to find the time to do it all.

Henrietta’s War – Joyce Dennys. Published by the Bloomsbury Group, books ‘chosen by readers for readers’ this is a gem, no other word for it. Read, laugh, cry and enjoy.

A good year and I could mention many more titles, but these are my stand out reads of 2009.

Simon Savidge of Savidge Reads:

When I was asked to choose my favourite book of 2009 I had to think long and hard, should it be something new published this year, should I find a title that’s a bit out there? In the end I opted for a book that I wish someone had raved about so much I ran out and bought it, and that’s what I am hoping you will do with East Lynne by Ellen Wood.

I had never heard of East Lynne until I did some research into the Sensation Novels (I love Wilkie Collins) which I 9536030_wood_lynne.inddthought would make great autumn reads whilst making me read more classics as I tend to pick up contemporary novels. Odd really as sensation novels have everything you could want in them; be it murder, jilted lovers, deceit, mystery, twisting plots and wonderful characters. East Lynne is no exception apart from the fact that its exceptional, no wonder people call it ‘the mother of all sensation novels’.

The tale is of Lady Isabel who as the novel opens meets two men one Carlyle falls in love with her one site, the other Captain Francis Levison a charming man who proves a real rogue. Isabel marries one but things come into play which lead her away and into the arms of another meaning she looses her children and will do anything to get them back.

In parts the book is implausible (that is what makes it so great and all sensation fiction is), it looks at social history in the Victorian times when divorce was becoming available. It also looks at the sanctity of ‘family’ in that period as step mothers who were from second marriages, not from the death of the first wife but of divorce instead, started to appear more things for women were changing again as naturally divorces were always in favour of the male party. All this whilst being a gripping read with a wonderful cast of characters like the often flighty and slightly idiotic Isabel, the bubbly Barbara Hare was a very interesting character with hidden depths and the icy, sister in law spinster Cornelia Carlyle who just for me walked off every page of the book as if she was in the room with me. Throw in all of the plots, back stories and twists and I was left quite breathless by its brilliance.

Simon Thomas of Stuck in a Book:

Usually when choosing my favourite book of the year, I have to weigh up various titles, and the winner is something of a surprise to me, having had several contenders. This year, I was only halfway through Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill when I realised that it would be my Top Book of 2009 – or at least it would take a newly-discovered Jane Austen manuscript to beat it. Basically, from the beautiful cover onwards, it’s everything bookish and literary that you could possibly wish for.

The premise is that Susan Hill will spend a year reading only books she has on her shelves. Not just unread books, but revisiting those from the past – much-read favourites alongside ones she’s always meant to read. As she writes: ‘a book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.’ In truth, most of Howards End is on the Landing is speculative, wondering which books might be read, and remembering her experiences with them, rather than reappraisals of the re-reads and newly reads. Is this an autobiography through reading? In a way, perhaps. But it is much more embracing than that – personal anecdotes, yes (her meeting with Iris Murdoch is quietly heart-breaking), but also chapters on how books can be shelved, whether or not to write in them, what constitutes a funny book, and on a huge range of authors from Enid Blyton to Jane Austen to Penelope Fitzgerald… It’s a bit like a very well-edited, and selective, blog. And I mean that as a compliment.

Above all, Susan Hill has written something delightfully, wisely, enchantingly bookish. I feel I have been around her old farmhouse, with its rooms full of bookcases – I feel her surprise when she happens upon an unexpected old friend on her uncategorised shelves. Mostly, I have fallen even more deeply in love with my own books.

There are some books which are read reluctantly; others so addictive that they are read walking down the street. Then there are those – and this is a rare, wonderful category – that are laid aside often, because the thought of finishing them, of having no more to read, is awful. Howards End is on the Landing is in this category – what higher praise can I offer?

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